It would be nice to think that, when WSM Radio went on the air in the Fall of 1925, that the Owners of the Station, National Life And Accident Insurance Co, would be such Fans of American Music that they would use their powerful radio signal to further the advance of our beloved music. Yessir, that’s the way it worked, right? Now, come on folks, can you imagine the Nashville Country Club set, the Elite, Southern Aristocracy, Richer than most of us can even imagine, and they probably did not sit around with their buddies and listen to a lot of Banjo, Fiddle and Guitar, playing “Bile That Cabbage Down”….no, these Insurance Moguls, formed the Radio Station WSM, for one good reason…To sell Insurance, and they did a dang good job of that. But, give the Insurance boys credit, they hired someone who would have the foresight and, and Msic Vision, to establish a piece of Music History. History will always award that Visionary Prize to the Program Director of WSM, who had been hired away from the giant Midwestern radio station in Chicago, WLS, where he was the announcer for The National Barn Dance. His name was George D Hay, “The Solemn Old Judge”, and he was one smart feller. George D Hay took to his new job with great enthusiasm, and found he needed something to fill the hours of program time allotted to WSM, when they were not, as the NBC Radio affiliate, just playing the Networks programs.
George Hay was a smart radio guy, he knew Old Time Music, and he knew that he had to develop some local programs to gain acceptance for WSM in their hometown and across the Rural areas that WSM was reaching. He also knew that the right program would probably help solidify his position with the Parent Company, National Life, and maybe even help sell some insurance. Now, about this same time, across town, the competition was also getting into this new media of Radio. Life And Casualty Insurance Co had launched WLAC radio, and built the highest skyscraper in Nashville, at the time, and for years the proud L&C letters stood out in Neon on top, andwas the first thing you saw in the Nashville skyline. WLAC management was looking into ways to sell Insurance also, but they ended up going in a different direction with their music. So, Nashville Radio, in its Infancy, was really no more than a couple of Insurance companies competing for a dollars worth of Insurance premiums. George D Hay, was the First with the Most, and it is still paying off. And it was all because of one old man with a Fiddle.
WSM, became an affiliate of NBC Radio Network, and took most of their Prime Time long form programs, but George needed a Programming Home Run. As I said before, George D Hay loved American Folk music, and he knew lots of local musicians. His Home Run came when he found an old fiddle player from LaGuardo, Tennessee, by the name of Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who was a local legendary fiddle player, who had won every fiddle contest he ever entered. George Hay brought Uncle Jimmy into the new studios of WSM, sat him in a comfortable chair in front of the mike, and turned him loose to play, and he played, and played. Well, this 80 year old fiddle player played non stop for over an hour and a half, going out over WSM’s powerful transmitter, much further than just around Nashville, and the Middle Tennessee region. It seems that what few radios were in existence at that time in history, most of them must have been tuned in to 650 on their radio dial. Even before the program was over and they were able to get Uncle Jimmy to stop playing (he just kept sawing away with his bow, a marathon man) telegrams were pouring in to the station. The people loved it! That’s been the case ever since the first song was played, in Ancient History, when an Aborigine Cave Dweller strung a gut string across the Jawbone of a Prehistoric Donkey. So, think about it, one 80 year old, long white bearded, farmer from Wilson County, Tennessee…well, he started it all, caused the whole explosion of Music City USA! One Old Timer with a Fiddle.
Luckily, George D Hay happened to love old time music, called “hillbilly”, “folk music”, “Old Timey Music” and any number of other names, at the time, before Marketing Geniuses got involved, and came up with even more titles. It sure did not take long for the word to get out about this new medium of radio, Musicians have always sought ways to reach their audience, and that Radio, with live music was getting peoples attention. Why, every musician and string band in the area started trying to get in to see Mr. Hay. The first appearance of Uncle Jimmy Thompson, was so popular with listeners that the program was expanded, and other musicians added, but, the first String Band that was invited to appear was Dr. Humphrey Bate and his group, “The Possum Hnters”, made up of five of his Sumner County, Tennessee neighbors, including the first man to play guitar on Nashville radio, Staley Walton, “The Man That Drove The Rhythm”, and they, along with Uncle Jimmy Thompson, had no idea what they were putting in gear. But, George D Hay, knew what he was doing, and he played it for all it was worth. He started calling the program, WSM Barn Dance, and it was stirring up people to flood the station with telegrams and letters of praise and support. Soon, other groups of musicians, some so new that George Hay had to Name them, following Uncle Jimmy and the string band, “The Possum Hunters”, came several more groups, like the “Fruit Jar Drinkers” “Sam and Kirk McGee From Sunny Tennessee”, “The Crook Brothers” and one of the first Super Stars of our Music, Uncle Dave Macon, “The Dixie Dewdrop”. After a couple of years of the “Barn Dance”, Mr. Hay solidified his place in History by changing the name of the program to “The Grand Ole Opry”, and folks, it just kinda took off like a runaway Locomotive.
Although the end of the decade, in 1929, brought financial chaos, The collapse of Wall Street, and set off hard times for most business ventures, people still had to have Insurance, and by now, WSM had started letting audience’s come in to watch the Radio Show. They were doing the performances inside the little 20 X 20 ft studio, with a glass viewing window, outside in the Hall, so the audience could see the action and hear the sound on a small wall mounted speaker. They quickly outgrew the studio, and went to several other venues around Nashville to accommodate the crowds that were clamoring to see the shows Meanwhile, don’t forget, the owner of WSM, and The Grand Ole Opry, was an Insurance Company. They just wanted to sell Policies. So, the Parent Company gave each Insurance Salesman, a book of Opry tickets to give away as premiums to new customers. It seems this simple, backwoods music show was really catching on, just as George D Hay had envisioned. “Keep her down to Earth boys and girls”, he would continually say to the Musicians, and his simplicity worked.
The Opry was still featuring mainly string bands, and it wasn’t until 1937 that Roy Acuff and The Smoky Mountain Boys, came in from Knoxville, Tennessee and joined the Music Circus, and by 1940, Roy Acuff was the Star Of The Show, and soon would be a house hold name all over the World, as his music spread during the World War. He started putting out hit records, and selling a lot of them. Of Course, that drew the other Singers, and so it went. During the 40’s War Years, the Opry boomed, partly because of the nearness of Fort Campbell, KY just up the road from Nashville, and the home of 101st Airborne. Folks were looking for soothing, down to earth music to calm their jittery War nerves.
The 40’s and 50’s were big growth years for the Opry, and the Show had moved to the Ryman Auditorium, as it finally got it’s Mother Church on June 5th,1943, and was filling up two shows a night, with lines stretching clear around the corner, and down several blocks on Saturday. The Duke Of Paducah, the comedy team of JamUp and Honey, Minnie Pearl, Eddie Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Ray Price, Pee Wee King, Bill Monroe, The Bales Brothers, Curly Fox and Texas Ruby, Lew Childre and Comedian Rod Brasfield, and Mr. Acuff , and “The Smoky Mountain Boys”, along with the very best Musicians for this type of music, anywhere in the World, mixing and mingling with each other. With each Saturday Night, it was feeling like another Family Reunion, with Guitar, Fiddle, Banjo, Dobro, High Lonesome harmonies, old rehashed Vaudeville jokes that never failed to get a laugh. The “Opry” had found it’s niche…and filled it, thank you George D.
“The Solemn Old Judge” George D Hay, who said in his Opry Book, that he wrote in 1945, that he got the idea for the Opry from attending an event in Mammoth Springs, Arkansas, deep iin the Ozark Mountains, when he was there as a Cub Reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. While there he attended a “hoe down” held in a neighbors one room log cabin, way back in the woods. Well, every person within 40 miles showed up for the good time. A fiddle player, and a guitar player kicked things off and a room and yard full of neighbors started the dancing and it went on like that all night long. That was in the mid 1900’s, when George was just a young man, but he carried the memory of that good time in music with him all those years and finally, it all came together one night, when George had a need, and when an old man sat down in a comfortable chair, in front of a mike, and played, non-stop for almost two hours. Uncle Jimmy Thompson, from LaGuardo, Tennessee, 80 years old, and never living to see the results, kicked off a chain of Musical Events that transcended the Great Depression, World War Two, Korean War, Viet Nam, 9/11, Worldwide Disasters….and, through it all, our Classic Country Music refused to go away. Our Ageless Music stays because People that love it keep it safe, sheltered in their Hearts and Minds, to be taken out and enjoyed, time and again.
Uncle Jimmy Thompson, you sat in the comfortable chair, in front of the first Microphone you had ever seen, put your fiddle to your shoulder, and sawed your Bow into the start of Something Great. “One Old Man, With A Fiddle”.